Tensions continue to rise as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) threatens South Korea and the US, which are currently conducting joint military drills Pyongyang believes are aimed at removing North Korean leadership, while continuing preparations for nuclear tests after launching a record number of missiles in 2016.
North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has claimed that a successful rocket engine test took place March 18, calling it a "a great event of historic significance," that would signal a "new birth" for the country’s rocket industry.
Following an assessment indicating that the engine could possibly be used in an intercontinental ballistic missile, the South Korean military said the North is "consistently involved in activities to advance their missile capabilities” and the reports seem to be "an extension of that," according to Stripes.com
A US Joint Chiefs of Staff official told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday that "Washington and Seoul have been tracking and monitoring such activities closely."
Kim Jong-un stated in his 2017 New Year’s address that the DPRK is "in the final stages of test-launching the intercontinental ballistic missile." If the country can create a working intercontinental ballistic missile, it would bring them closer to being able to power a missile capped with a nuclear warhead to the US mainland.
Estimations vary on how close Pyongyang is to reaching its goals. North Korean watchdog site 38 North showed recent satellite images of increased excavation activities at the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, including the presence of vehicles or trailers there, possibly for loading testing equipment.
The outlet wrote,"These activities by themselves do not establish that test preparations are imminent. However, the possibility of an impending test cannot be ruled out."
On Saturday they noted, "If these vehicles are related to test preparations, they could be involved in the installation of instrumentation or even a nuclear device."
Since 2006 North Korea has conducted five underground nuclear tests, including two in 2016.
Given the North’s penchant for provocations during political events, such as launching missiles into the Sea of Japan as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, some have speculated that Pyongyang may conduct a nuclear test on April 15 to mark the birthday of Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-sung, or perhaps on April 25, to commemorate the Korean People’s Army’s anniversary.
Seoul and Washington’s drill includes 300,000 South Korean troops and 17,000 US military personnel. US Marines flew F35-B stealth fighters to South Korea for the first time earlier this week.
On Saturday, the Korean Central News Agency warned that, "The General Staff declares the KPA’s stand to mercilessly smash the enemy’s moves with its own style of special operation and preemptive attack," according to Yonhap News Agency.